The dream option: Traore reunites with Bosz at Ajax
“He is a true Ajax striker,” Peter Bosz said of his club’s latest signing – a strange description of a player who not only does not count himself as a centre forward, but who has no prior links to the Amsterdam side. However, the 52-year-old’s claim is still a logical one.
The 20-year-old returns to the Eredivisie for a third loan spell, having spent a season and a half with Vitesse. Teaming up once again with the man who converted him from an attacking midfielder to a winger to a striker, the Burkina Faso international is a welcome and crucial addition to Bosz’s side.
Ajax have needed more depth in attack since selling their top scorer of last season, Arkadiusz Milik, to Napoli for €32 million. While Mateo Cassierra, 19, signed this summer from Deportivo Cali for around €5.5m, and 18-year-old Kasper Dolberg remain in the side, the Godenzonen remain thin in terms of proven talents in attack.
Traore may not be much older than his rivals for the No.9 role in the capital, but that is rarely a factor when it comes to Ajax and indeed Bosz.
“He was eager to come back to the Eredivisie,” the coach added. “If I have to choose between a good striker and an experienced striker, then I choose a good striker.”
The No.9 role at Ajax is a very difficult one to fill. The team’s desire to dominate possession and the trademark swapping of positions between players as they build up places extra demands on the position usually called upon to put the ball on the net. Just like being a goalkeeper at Ajax means doing a lot more than stopping shots, being a striker is about much more than scoring goals.
For that reason, Ajax have not had much joy when it comes to strikers since the departure of Luis Suárez, hardly ‘a typical Ajax-striker’ himself. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson was not of the required standard to truly shine at the Amsterdam ArenA, while Milik was not perfectly suited to the playing style of Frank de Boer’s side, despite being hailed as one of Europe’s most promising attackers. Richairo Zivkovic has also been a victim of the plentiful demands that come with being an Ajax forward. The teenager was signed after a fine season with FC Groningen, but his reputation took a battering after a year in Ajax’s reserves before he failed to live up to expectations on loan at Willem II.
Traore, however, is a more suitable candidate for the role. A powerful player whose pace, dribble and goalscoring ability have seen him deprived of being utilised in his favoured position, attacking midfield, such versatility puts him in good stead to shine in Bosz’s new side.
Bosz initially used Traore as a winger at Vitesse, using his speed to link up with those around him. But in the ongoing search for a replacement for Wilfried Bony, whose boots Abiola Dauda failed to fill, he opted to play Traore through the middle on occasion from December 2014 on.
From there, Traore’s strength and movement off the ball allowed him to flourish as he began to find the net regularly. He finished his only full season in the yellow and black with 13 goals from 29 league games. And with an impressive 12 goals from his last 16 matches, the games he played as a striker, prompting fans to wonder what his record would have been had he played as a No.9 all year.
The fans adored him, but none more so than Bosz, as the manager said: “I think he has the potential to become a world class player.”
Even Traore was surprised by his success as the pinnacle of the attack. “As a child, I always played as a right winger or as a No.10,” he told De Telegraaf as he reflected on that campaign. “This is the first season that I played as a striker. I did not expect it to go so well.”
With his skillset, work rate and desire to improve, Traore seemingly keeps adding suitable positions to his repertoire. He even filled in at left-back during a friendly for Chelsea, revealing afterwards that he “didn’t mind” it.
According to Bosz, however, his destiny is in the No.9 role.
“It’s up to Chelsea and to himself, but when if he were to ask me for advice, I would tell him to go for the striker position,” he told De Telegraaf.
“There are few really good strikers in football – it is the most difficult position in the team, but Bertrand has the qualities. He is a player that can really make a difference as a striker.”
Bosz knew by the end of the 2014-15 season that Traore would not be back at the GelreDome, having had talks with Chelsea officials. “I expect him to fit in at Chelsea next year,” he said. “They will not sell him, not even for €20 million. That would be a shame.”
Bosz was right about, mostly. Chelsea refused to loan him back to Vitesse in 2015-16, not in order to send him to a team at a higher level, but to monitor his progress and keep him as backup to Diego Costa. The forward did not nail down a regular starting spot, but he went on to make 15 first team appearances, including two in the Champions League. Again, being switched between a winger and a centre forward under Jose Mourinho and, more frequently, Guus Hiddink, he netted two goals in the 10 league games in which he featured.
“Although he’s not playing, his character is very optimistic. He’s always coming in with a smile, whether he’s playing or not,” Hiddink said after Traore scored against Newcastle in February. “When a player comes into the Premier League, saying ‘I don’t want to go on loan, I want to make my progress here’, and when they get their first goal – and it was a beautiful goal, a typical striker’s goal which I like very much – it was a tremendous joy for him.”
“He was desperate to stay. We were thinking about sending him on loan, yes or no. We talked about that but he would love to be with us for the rest of the season and he has made progress.”
Still, he was not being used as often as some would have preferred, and so the links to loan moves away from London came again this summer, with Chelsea holding onto Costa, signing Michy Batshuayi for over €30 million and showing a reported interest in Romelu Lukaku.
Although Antonio Conte watched on as Traore impressed during pre-season friendlies with goals against RZ Pellets and AC Milan, the pressure on the Blues to improve after a disastrous season, means opportunities would again be rare for him this term and they have opted to loan him out.
After Ajax’s record sale of Milik to Napoli, Traore became their top transfer target and after weeks of waiting, Traore reunited with Bosz in the Dutch capital. But it is not the first time the Eredivisie giants have shown an interest, as scout Piet de Visser admitted last December that Marc Overmars had enquired about him.
However, there is a sense that Traore is too good even for Ajax. The lure of Champions League football is obvious, but the Dutch side are not guaranteed to make the group stage as of yet, while their prospects in either European competition are never great and expected to be short lived. Traore has the quality and diversity in his play to suit most leagues in the continent and is certainly capable of playing for quality sides in more challenging leagues, including top half teams in England’s top flight.
Their loss is Ajax’s gain, however, and pulling on the iconic white-red-white jersey of the Amsterdam ArenA side provides a big test. The pressure on those who represent the Sons of the Gods is huge – even Zlatan Ibrahimovic admitted to feeling daunted by it – while he is guaranteed regular playing time with a coach who believes in him.
A day after getting their man and completing the loan signing, Traore was on the bench in the Amsterdam ArenA as Ajax took on Roda JC, much to the excitement of the club’s supporters.
Coming on to replace Dolberg, who scored two goals for Ajax, Traore looked bright. With his first burst deep into the box just a minute after coming on, his run off the ball dragged the defenders with him and opened up the space for Amin Younes to run in and hit a shot. Then as they attacked down the other side, he met a Mitchell Dijks cross at the front post but could only hit the side netting. As Ajax found a way into the box with eight minutes left, it rolled to Traore who smashed it towards goal, but saw it sail over the bar.
The chances were there, but Ajax were punished for not taking them, with some lazy defending seeing them concede an equaliser on the 90th minute.
And while Traore did not find the net in his first 27 minutes as an Ajax player, the positives were aplenty.
The competition is heavy for a spot up front. Dolberg looks like a natural finisher, with good positioning, while he is clearly unfazed by the pressure on him. Cassierra, on the other hand, is an interesting young player and, having scored on his league debut against Sparta, has given a good account of himself so far.
But with a coach who already knows and believes in him and Traore himself looking to show Chelsea what he can do when given a run in a first-team at a high level, it is likely that he will earn his place as a regular starter.
With Bosz hailing him as a true Ajax striker and a potentially world class one at that, Traore has the support and the surroundings needed to make more great strides in his development this season.